The RAF has set out plans that could see the production of hypersonic planes flying at more than 3,000mph. The Ministry of Defence has announced it is investing £10 million to develop new hypersonic engines that could be used to power manned fighter jets and drones.
As missile technology makes flying combat aircraft increasingly risky, flying up to five times the speed of sound will mean fighter jets can destroy targets before they are engaged by enemy air defences.
Unveiling the two-year project at the Air and Space Power conference on Wednesday, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, the head of the air force, said the new engines would be “exploring the boundaries of technology”.
“This is not an idea, a lot of this technology exists,” he said.
“Our potential adversaries are looking at these things as well. We have noted very carefully what the Russians are doing.”
High-Mach, or hypersonic, refers to speeds roughly between Mach 1, the speed of sound, and Mach 5, which is the current practical limit for planes and drones. Beyond that speed the chemical properties of the metals making up the aircraft will be affected.
The space shuttle reached speeds around Mach 5 on re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere and needed special ceramic materials to withstand the extreme temperatures generated.
Current technology would not allow a plane to be built for these speeds, even if the engine was capable of producing the necessary propulsion.
The Chief of the Air Staff said: “Speed of response is the essence of conflict these days.
“Targets are likely to be relatively fleeting and when the opportunity arises you need to be able to engage quickly.
“Over the last three decades we have enjoyed unparalleled advantage in air and space to allow us to do operations in Iraq, Syria and Libya.
“Potential adversaries have spotted this and we now have increasingly sophisticated integrated air defence systems. Their goal is to deny us access to their airspace.
“If we cant get access then we really do have a problem. One way to get round that is speed, to go through at hypersonic speed and deny them the opportunity to engage.”
British firm Reaction Engines will develop the hypersonic project, in partnership with Rolls Royce and BAE Systems.